Biochemist, farmer and mother of four Cheryl Reeves is on a mission to showcase the wide range of opportunities agriculture has to offer. Gaina Morgan finds out more.
In April this year Cheryl Reeves launched Agri-cation, a community interest project aimed at engaging all age groups in agriculture.
Arisen from a conviction that so many people, like her young self, grow up with no knowledge or understanding of farming, she is determined to play her part in changing that.
From small children to the elderly, her vision is to develop an educational hub on the family farm in Bangoron-Dee, Wrexham, for the public to visit which is comfortable.
Cheryl says: “Agri-cation is an educational hub and information exchange.
It is a huge passion of mine as I was not given these opportunities when I was educated in the industrial town of Warrington.
“Our education system believed to become successful the route to take was science or engineering.
“Because I came from an urban society, agriculture was not really a subject touched upon.
There were no vocational courses, and they would never steer you really into the direction of agriculture.
I did not know anything about it really.
I would say it is the same for a lot of others in cities too.” Agri-cation, Cheryl says, is based around on-farm learning.
She will be predominantly aiming it at schools and groups, such as Brownies and Scouts, but also adults, with the plan to involve all age ranges in growing and harvesting fruit and vegetables in the garden.
Visiting groups can also be involved in grass management, whereby youngsters will be encouraged to grow grass from seed in pots at home and teenagers will take part in scientific experiments, pH testing, soil analysis and learning about the carbon cycle.
Critically, the initiative is rooted in high-tech, innovative farming, albeit on a small scale.
The farm business itself is firmly underpinned by science-based protocols and the rigorous application of techniques acquired on numerous training courses.
So much so, the progress she and husband, Andrew, have made in developing the farm into a profitable 53-hectare (130-acre) plus unit from a 1ha (three-acre) plot bought to build their home and rear a few calves initially is credible.
Andrew is an engineer, but grew up on a smallholding with the innate skills of a farm child, while Cheryl has applied her scientific knowledge, aptitude for learning and business flair to grow her skills base.
Cheryl and Andrew now rear up to 500 calves per year, mainly British Blues and Aberdeen-Angus, and are proud the business is making money, despite not benefiting from the Basic Payment Scheme.
"Now, more than ever, it is crucial to influence young people towards careers in or supportive of farming"
The housed system is fully automated, feeding 80 calves per month, with calves reared for six weeks in the milk shed before moving into the weaning shed.
Cheryl says: “We have got a lot of automated systems on the farm.
One example being the automated milk feeder which gives each calf a specific amount of milk according to the diet plan we input, then the data is monitored and analysed and fed back to our computer.
“We look for calves that we know will fit into the supply chain at the time.
We look at genetics, but most of all we like to work effectively with local dairy farms and we will always keep our eye on the market too.
Hopefully in the next couple of months I will also be developing a web page to advertise our farming business.” Some calves are kept for the couple’s beef finishing system and others sold as weaned calves, to maintain cashflow.
The couple is also working with a PhD student from Cambridge, with the aim of publishing the evidenced low carbon footprint of grass-fed meat on their web page.
Somewhat counter intuitively, training and technology has allowed them to expand by reducing the rented acreage by 8ha (20 acres).
A rotational grazing system, introduced following a Farming Connect profit from pasture course, being one example of how increasing efficiencies have allowed them to do this.
Aside from the farm, Cheryl also works 20 hours per week on quality control at a nearby pharmaceuticals company, while Andrew’s job is fulltime, both also juggling the various commitments which come with bringing up their four children, aged between two and 10.
Farming is the driving passion, but so is the wider picture.
Cheryl is almost messianic about the need to reboot the outlook of the urban population.
Clearly, she is academically gifted, but she is adamant there is a range of interesting roles in agriculture across the spectrum.
She feels passionately it is important young people are aware of the job and lifestyle opportunities beyond city life, as well as of the vital role agriculture has in feeding the nation as well as looking after landscapes as we know them.
Cheryl is also part of the network of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) ambassadors on the back of her work in the pharmaceuticals sector.
The network is made up of volunteers from a wide range of STEM-related jobs and disciplines across the UK.
She says: “Because I work in pharmaceuticals, these topics are something I am qualified in and also interested in.
A lot of farming links into those four subjects, so I will target schools and invite them to come and learn about farming, but also tell them about what STEM does.
“You obviously have budding scientists, engineers and mathematicians. They might not actually go into agriculture, but they might develop vaccines for TB. They might be innovative and develop machinery that completely changes agriculture.
There are lots of different avenues you can target and help the industry, other than farming as a career.” Financing her new project does present its challenges, and some schools and enterprises will be charged, but the emphasis is on flexibility.
A member of staff is also needed to help with the animals and the children.
Cheryl is presently crowdfunding with the NatWest Back Her Business scheme, which is helping women to become entrepreneurial and will back £5,000 raised with £2,500.
The money will go towards installing an educational hub on the farm, with toilet facilities and hand wash area.
She hopes that longer term her Agri-cation project will act as a pilot and spin out across the UK, spreading the farming word to non-rural communities.
This will require the involvement of large companies and big industry, as well as the National Lottery.
Cheryl says: “The National Lottery quite like pilot studies where they will give you £10,000 towards a pilot study.
Once that is going, they will start funding more if it something they think will work.
“It is baby steps first though. At the moment I am just targeting the north west of England and North Wales.
Then hopefully I can go nationwide.” Covid-19 may have delayed her plans, but Cheryl is optimistic when life starts returning to some kind of normality, she will be able to open the farmgates to schools and groups who have expressed an interest in the project.
She also feels that, longer term, the pandemic could be working to broaden the understanding of consumers around where their food comes from, possibility influencing more to select locally-sourced or sustainably-produced food.
Cheryl says: “It means that now, more than ever, it is crucial to influence young people towards careers in or supportive of farming and to its importance in terms of environment, leisure and landscape.”